Heartstrings Review

‘So, what do you guys want to hear?’: Iron & Wine at Portland’s Mississippi Studios

By Asher Alexander (Photo: Steffen Jørgensen, VoxHall)

I can’t think of any other artist in the singer-songwriter sphere that is at once as universally loved and as universally divisive as Iron & Wine. The acclaim that met the minimal solo sound of early albums, including The Creek Drank The Cradle and Our Endless Numbered Days in some cases slowly gave way to dissension. Sam Beam began to explore a fuller and jazzier approach on later records, such as Kiss Each Other Clean and especially his latest, Ghost On Ghost. Horns, electronic bleeps, orchestration, a panoply of layered voices all stirred up the once tranquil acoustic stream. Gasp! These things don’t belong in folk music, right? As of late, that seems to be the reaction I get whenever I’ve expressed excitement or interest in a new Iron & Wine record or performance. During these last few years, one is never sure which Iron & Wine you’re going to get — Solo Sam or the Iron & Wine Rock n’ Roll Explosion.

Each live performance I’ve seen over the last 7 or 8 years, he’s been backed by a large live band, yet it truly doesn’t matter what his songs are wearing. Underneath every instruments and jazzy arrangement, are the seeds of great modern American folk songs, albeit a bit dressed up. I’ve told every naysayer along the way to keep the faith. The solo acoustic Sam Beam is still there.

My faith was rewarded last month when Iron & Wine came through Portland for a solo acoustic 1 off performance at the incredibly intimate Mississippi Studios. Apparently, Sam was coming to town on other business and just felt like playing a show. Unfortunately, the approximately 300 tickets sold out before I even knew the show was happening. A good friend in-the-know told me it was the venue’s fastest selling concert ever. With a $350 mark up of tickets on craigslist, if I wanted in, I’d just have to arrive well before show time and hope for a miracle. Believe it or not, my faith was rewarded again. The first person I hit up for an extra ticket had one and sold it to me for face value! I was taken aback when he answered my question with an affirmative. I was expecting to have to endure at least some rejection first.

When Sam Beam came out on stage he greeted the tiny, packed room with the last thing most people expect to hear right out of the gate at a concert. “So, what do you guys want to hear?” Beam, a seasoned headliner, plays to thousands and for one night only he’s going to take requests from me and 300 of my new closest friends! Unbelievable! The first thing he picked out of the cacophony of song titles rising from the crowd was a suggestion that he start with something new. He apparently found this impressive and later in the set remarked how cool he thought that was and that we, the audience, must be either brave or dumb to ask for a brand new song.

The atmosphere was ultra-relaxed — less concert, more living room jam session, with your hilarious and incredibly talented friend holding court. An uptempo version of “Evenings On The Ground (Lilith’s Song)” followed the beautiful, nameless debut. It featured plenty of in-song banter where, normally, a full band’s solo and some ribbing of local boy, and Shins frontman James Mercer would have been. Everyone was rapt and laughing at the same time. No song represented the evening’s mix of ridiculous jokes and chatter and sublime, gorgeous emotional ballads better than “Passing Afternoon.” It’s one of my very favorite Iron & Wine songs and always has the power to knock the wind out of me, which it did. Immediately.

Suddenly however, midway through his first verse, Sam forgot the lyrics. He struggled for a moment and everyone had a good laugh at his expense, which he took with grace. Someone in the crowd began singing where he had left off. They had used their phone to get the lyrics and were giving our troubadour a helping hand. Sam jumped back into the song and my reverie immediately returned. It was a strange sensation. To have that feeling where the emotions of the moment make your insides clench up, then that moment so suddenly shattered, then put back together again in an instant.

More audience requests followed as “Fever Dream” and “Communion Cups and Someones Coat” from the rarities collection, Around The Well, were plucked from the crowd. At this point, Sam remarked that as an audience we were showing our age, as a good portion of the bellowed requests were for older material. Almost in sheer defiance, he began the next section of the show with exclusively newer material, with the exception of a highlight performance of oldie “God Made The Automobile.” The new included Ghost On Ghost’s “Baby Center Stage,” “Lovers Revolution,” “Caught In The Briars,” The Shepard’s Dog’s poly-rhythmic lead single “Boy With A Coin,” “Half Moon” and “Monkeys Uptown” from Kiss Each Other Clean each got the solo treatment. As much as I cherish his earlier material, it was the chance to hear these newer songs stripped bare of their floral musical accoutrements that excited me most about this one-of-a-kind show. As I always suspected, or more accurately knew all along, these song seeds can grow any way Iron & Wine wants them to. It was a real thrill to get to hear him play with them in their simplest, most delicate form.

Throughout the evening there was one clear favorite; one song the audience wanted to hear more than any other — “The Trapeze Swinger.” When Sam finally obliged, the whole crowd seemed to take one collective breath and hold it in for the entirety of the epic eight and a half minutes of childhood, love, risk, adventure, memory and loss. For a few passages in the middle and at the end he stopped playing his guitar and sang the verses a cappella, during which time Mississippi Studios was so quiet and so reverent, you could hear the shutter of a camera click. Like an inspired revival tent preacher selling salvation, he had everyone in a trance full of awe and wonder. Sam delivers his lyrics about barns, fields, horses and life of rural America with such conviction and warmth that these songs have the amazing power to make you nostalgic for a childhood that you never had. For a moment, I am able to forget that I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and instead feel like my youth was spent somewhere more visually consistent with the setting of Terrance Malick’s Days of Heaven. Running through wind swept wheat fields with brothers I don’t have, as my mother in an old apron she never wore, calls us to dinner from a rickety screen door on a farmhouse that never existed.

One of the most thrilling things about seeing Iron & Wine live is his ability to seemingly rework his songs without skipping a beat. His phrasing, melody, tempo, even chords can take on a new life and structure. In a live setting, some songs are often vastly different from their recorded versions. “Southern Anthem” was almost unrecognizable from its twin on The Creek Drank The Cradle. Live, it transformed into a slow burning, sinister minor key dirge.

As if to keep the southern thread going, Sam played “Sodom South Georgia” next. I suspect it might be a personal favorite of his, if only because it’s the only song I’ve heard each of the seven times I’ve seen him live.

Finally, he visited In The Reins, 2005’s excellent collaborative effort with Calexico, leaving The Sea & The Rhythm EP as his only record without a representative in the setlist.

“Sixteen Maybe Less” made a fantastic set closer, if only for the chance it afforded him to partake in a little more of the evenings lighthearted shenanigans. Each break between verses featured Sam comically warbling, in what he described as “underwater singing.” Whatever it was, it filled in admirably for the pedal steel guitar on the album version.

When it came time for an encore, Sam chose “Biting Your Tail.” It fit perfectly and represents the duality of Iron and Wine.  The B side of the “Walking Far From Home” single, may be the farthest (no pun intended) Iron & Wine has ever strayed from his minimalist acoustic folk roots. The recorded version contains no discernible organic or acoustic instruments, save for his voice. The rhythm and melody are constructed entirely with layered electronics. Held up to his early material and sound, it’s a rather jarring listen. Live, however, with guitar in hand, Sam Beam transforms “Biting Your Tail” into the warm, funny, honest, song of hope, wish and prayer it always was.

It doesn’t matter what the songs are wearing, the truth, beauty and honesty are always there. It doesn’t matter whether he’s alone or backed by a full band of strings and horns and computers, Iron and Wine can always break your heart and lift your spirit, all at the same time.

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